Digital Note-Taking [Part 1]

I’ve embarked on a note-taking crusade. I’ve realised that taking notes is so much more of an upheaval in the phd process.   I use an iPad and my Macbook Pro to take notes, but this process is the same for anyone using a pdf annotation tool and a computer.  So here are the best ways I’ve taken notes so far.

Here are my applications:

GoodReader - which I’ve chosen because it has a myriad of tools to use. Most of which I haven’t tried yet. But it’s the most flexible, and least confusing one I’ve found. It don’t cost money, but what’s £5 in a three+ year phd experience?  Downside to GoodReader, though, is that it’s only available on iOS, and doesn’t have Mac app either.


Evernote - I’ve been using Evernote since forever. I’ll be honest that I don’t like it as much as OneNote. But I switched to Evernote before OneNote was available on OS X back when I became an apple user.  In this instance, though, Evernote is actually easier to use when taking quick notes… and much easier to organize...because of it’s simple, uniform look.

[Before we go further, I want to make a note that you should know the purpose of your notes.  The purpose of the below method is for me to have access about the literature in multiple ways.  I am taking notes that I can look at over several years and with several questions in mind. So they need to be flexibly thorough.  I will also note, that I might go this process several times over a span of months in order to get the most out of the literature from multiple reads and reflections.]

Now on to note taking!

Creating A Chaotic Order System

I’m a messy note taker.

I understand the need to have multiple access point to research (which is why I’m all about working digitally), but I’m a messy note taker (Quote). So I set myself up for chaotic order.

I give myself the use of no more than four highlighting colors, and I give them overall themes:

  • Yellow - general summarising note, figure, table, this is the color I use the most (pink is a close second) and helps me find the information that is really important
  • Pink - anything specifically CITABLE (direct quote, lines to paraphrase, really good tables/figures from the text), this color often overlaps with yellow, but I use it to highlight what I will need to write in my Evernote note
  • Green - further research items such as defining words, important names, etc
  • Blue - further questions/discussion points, I use this color sparsely but it’s usually because I don’t agree with what the text is saying and will need to note this conflict later, and/or there something in the text that makes me chase an interesting thought and I want to explore it later

I chose these colors because they are the ones you’re most likely to get in a packet of highlighters.  It’s as simple as that. Below are pics of my highlighting colors in action.  They give me the freedom to make kind of messy notes, but in an organized way for later.  


Recently, I’ve shifted from using bubbles–as shown above–to using coloured boxes with text that coincides with one of the colours above.  It helps make those notes stand out when I scroll through the text on my Mac.

Syncing, Sipping, and Summarising

So, once I’m done notetaking, I sync GoodReader. It’s a good habit to get into syncing/saving anything you’re working on. And, it takes about two seconds. GoodReader does the lovely thing of syncing in the background (two thumbs up), but not automatically (one thumb down).

While GoodReader is syncing and if I’m done reading for a while, I’ll go make a cup of tea.  This is an important part of notetaking. I like to give myself about half-an-hour to maybe a couple of hours of break time before I start reverberating my annotations.

Essentially, I read for X amount of hours (one article after the next, usually, because I read according to an identified theme/question), take a good break (might even run errands at this point), then I’ll come back and start typing up my notes.

Now the colors become really important. I’ll pull up the pdfs I’ve just finished reading on the Mac AND I’ll pull up an evernote note template. I’ve adopted this bit from the well-known “cornell-system”, and have taken the essence of this method to enhance a system of reading for analysis.  

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 8.42.59 PM.png

I fill in the tags with:

  • First author
  • Theme/Topic/Key word
  • Journal
  • If it has terms: I use the tag "terms"
Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 8.13.22 PM.png

I write the title of the paper in the Evernote title section like this:



This helps for when I need to search for the note later during writing or re-reading.

Then it’s just plugging in the information and taking notes that make sense of my understanding of the text.  

The important part here though is how you organise the note (because you’ll come back later to add to the notes as you get deeper into your research).

Getting on with writing

Whoops, I forgot to mention my actual writing process, which occurs before the reading/annotating process.  

I actually draft my paper BEFORE I start to think about what I’m looking for in the text.  [Say, what?!?!?!?!] Yes. I write my paper before reading literature because (A) writing is part of the thinking process, (2) I can see the themes of my ideas which give way to (C) initial questions to explore and make arguments for/against the literature.   

Thinking is messy

This becomes a cyclical process of writing*, reading, adding in citations/editing writing, reading through the writing, sharpening/adding more citations, etc, etc.  This is process about thoroughness and embracing a multiple writing/reading approach. It also helps me not be too reliant on the literature–one of the biggest differences in writing a critical academic paper or writing a paper of summaries–and confront my own bullsh*t, passive language.

It’s a messy process made easier by iterative and adaptive organization, because thinking is messy.